Flyers aren't the underdogs but cup play resembles '74

Watching Philadelphia and the New York Islanders battle it out in the 1980 Stanley Cup finals, one can't help recalling another dramatic series just six years ago, when the upstart Flyers team rose from obscurity to knock off the mighty Boston Bruins.

This time, however, it is the Flyers who have already tasted glory and who started off as the favorites with the home-ice advantage -- but whose armor may have acquired a few chinks by now in the form of wear and tear to key veterans. And, of course, it is the Islanders who are now cast in the role of the "new kid on the block" -- the hungry, long-frustrated expansion team finally getting its chance for professional hockey's most coveted prize.

The visitors started off like a team that doesn't intend to be denied, either , dominating play throughout most of the game and eventually winning a 4-3 overtime thriller to launch the best-of-seven series, which resumes here with Game 2 tonight.

"We were outplayed," conceded the Philadelphia coach, Pat Quinn, sounding like a recording of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito & Co. after they were beaten here a half dozen years ago by an underdog team that obviously wanted the cup just a little bit more."

"We weren't skating and we weren't taking the body," Quinn added. "They seemed looser and more confident. The score may have been close, but I don't think the play was. They deserved to win."

Veteran defenseman Jim Watson, whose controversial penalty for pulling down John Tonelli set up Denis Potvin's winning goal at 4:07 of the sudden-death period, agreed that the Flyers weren't up to their usual hustling standards for this key first test.

"We seemed to do a lot of standing around," he said.

Philadelphia's regular-season National Hockey League champions, a team that earlier this year compiled a record-breaking 35-game unbeaten streak, did indeed look flat, especially at the beginning. The Flyers' only goal of the first period was a fluke -- pushed in accidentally by Potvin under his own goaltender during a scramble in front of the net. Even that bad break failed to discourage the Islanders, however, as they controlled the action for most of the period and tied the score on a power-play goal by Mike Bossy.

After Potvin and Bobby Clarke traded second-period goals, Philadelphia went ahead 3-2 with less than seven minutes left via another strange score -- this one by Rick MacLeish on a shot from an apparently impossible angle that somehow ricocheted off goaltender Billy Smith's leg and into the net. Again, though, the Islanders refused to give up, battling back to tie it on Stefan Persson's power-play goal with only 3:42 remaining, then winning it on Potvin's dramatic score.

And so the Islanders, in this eight year of their existence, have the jump in their bid to become the second expansion team their bid to win the cup (Philadelphia, of course, was the first). The 1980 Flyers, though, want no part of any talk about the mirror image of that 1974 series. And indeed, as many of them are quick to point out, there are quite a few differences to go along with the similarities.

Only six players -- Clarke, MacLeish, Watson, Bill Barber, Moose Dupont, and Bob Kelly -- are left from that championship squad. And only one additional member -- Reggie Leach -- remains from the 1975 team that won a second straight cup. That's a pretty strong nucleus, of course, but it does mean that about two-thirds of the current team consists of players who are just as eager as the Islanders in their first crack at the first prize.

They're even more eager, perhaps, for ironically the pressure of playing in the Stanley Cup finals seemed to affect the Flyers more than it did the Islanders, none of whom had ever been in this situation before.

Much was made by the fans, the Philadelphia press, and the players of referee Andy Van Hellemond's penalty call that gave New York its overtime opportunity. No one denied that Watson had committed an infraction (he had grabbed. Tonelli and pulled him to the ice as the latter broke in for what looked like a good scoring chance), but the Flyers cited the so-called "unwritten rule" that you seldom if ever call penalties in the closing minutes of regulation or anytime in overtime during a Stanley Cup game.

Indeed, such penalties are rare, but the Flyers are a strange team to complain about them, since they were the beneficiaries of just such a call against Bobby Orr near the end of the game in which they clinched the cup in 1974. Watson's penalty was just as flagrant as that one, and Van Hellemond's call was both correct and courageous.

Looking ahead, the Flyers said all the usual things ("It's just one game, it takes four to win," etc.). But deep down they had to be wondering -- especially after being consistently beaten all through the opener in the very areas where they usually excel. Philadelphia's forecheckers looked as though they had missed their wake-up call, while the penalty killers -- whose incredible success against Minnesota had been the key to the semifinal victory -- couldn't hold off the New York power play in those two crucial late situations.

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